Protesters hold posters in support of the National Unity Government (NUG) during a demonstration against the military coup on 'Global Myanmar Spring Revolution Day' in Taunggyi, Shan state, on May 2, 2021. Photo: AFP / Stringer

On September 13, the United States and China brokered a deal deferring the decision on who would represent Myanmar at the 76th session of the UN General Assembly the following day, putting off an affirmative decision on the matter from the Credentials Committee that, under a nine-panel consensus, usually advises the UNGA.

While a sustained effort by civil-society groups and legal experts, and widespread calls on the ground from the Myanmar people in the form of protests, were taking place to assert moral and legal grounds to accept the credentials of the National Unity Government (NUG) applicant, Kyaw Moe Tun, the decision on the matter never reached the Credentials Committee.

As member states agreed to hold off any discussion, Kyaw Moe Tun, as the incumbent ambassador, is now sitting, but not representing, Myanmar at the UNGA 76.

While some commentators focused on the upside of this, suggesting there was some kind of long-term geopolitical benefit from China and the US agreeing on something from a diplomatic perspective, it’s hard to see how the two major global players agreeing to kick the can down the road is a positive outcome.

It is much easier to view it for what it is; yet again, underhand dialogue and quiet diplomacy have been put ahead of states’ obligation to cooperate to end serious breaches of pre-emptive norms of international law in their decision-making processes.

Recognition of the NUG would not in itself address these issues, of course, but it would have at least signaled to the Myanmar military’s State Administration Council (SAC) affirmatively, that their disastrous and failing coup is illegitimate.

A lack of a clear decision on this matter will do nothing but embolden the SAC in its actions in the coming months, while also failing to provide relevant procedural guidance to international organizations such as the World Health Organization, which has deferred the matter on who represents Myanmar to the UNGA.

More importantly than anything, however, it continues to show the people of Myanmar – at risk every day from the SAC’s horrific campaign against its people, in every town, village, and city – the impotence of so-called democracy-focused governments to come to a consensus on the issue.

On September 15, the special envoy of the UN secretary general on Myanmar, Christine Schraner Burgener, stated that previous attempts for an all-inclusive dialogue were not welcomed by the Tatmadaw and that because of this, “other stakeholders” had no choice but to resort to violence.

This rare candid statement from a senior UN representative finally echoed the angry responses of the overwhelming majority of people on the ground when ambassadors, international analysts, and journalists have been calling for “dialogue” to end the bloodshed.

The people of Myanmar have engaged in dialogue, peacefully and overwhelmingly. Widespread requests for R2P (Responsibility to Protect) toward the international community spurred false hope among communities whose people were being killed daily. Larger protests that gained worldwide coverage ceased and those wishing to exercise their right to peaceful protest retreated to their respective local communities.

At this point, Yangon was already in a state of what could be described as “total war.” Shops provided free food and drinks to protesters, blacksmiths designed makeshift shields for demonstrators and erected metal fences as protection from night-time raids and attacks by the SAC into neighborhoods to kidnap people, and local hardware shops provided hard-hats and vests. All local businesses played their role in some way.

The community mobilization to defend themselves was swift, highly organized, and coordinated. Barricades 2 meters tall made up of bricks, tires, wood and barbed wire were constructed, deconstructed, and moved when necessary, within minutes. Sentries were posted to look out for snipers, township by township networks established so people could protest in their respective areas, and give warning of an approaching Tatmadaw battalion.

In one example, a battalion that guarded the area close to Hledan train station, some 50 soldiers on most days, which would randomly fire at houses to try and instill fear in the community, moved off to another township. Within seconds of them leaving, hundreds of community members descended upon Hledan Road, setting up fresh barricades up and down between the two junctions to attempt to keep them out, or at least delay them on their return.

As killings continued, as early as March the talk in the tea shops and the beer stations of Yangon was of the realization that the people were on their own and the necessity of armed defense and how best to move ahead with this as a long-term strategy. The failure of the international community then has led to the situation Myanmar is in now.

On September 7 the NUG announced its “D-Day,” the relevance of which was the acceptance that Myanmar was in a state of total war: a defensive war – every civilian-controlled construct of society mechanized toward one single aim – win the war. Make no mistake, many local communities in Myanmar have been implementing that for months; it’s the international community that still fails to support it meaningfully.

It is for this reason that statements such as those made by Pete Vowles, the new British ambassador, to engage in “dialogue” and “peaceful means” were met with acerbic responses by Myanmar social-media users. “When the might of the Nazi army was at the doorstep, did you ask for dialogue or did you fight?” was one such repost.

There are obvious differences from the World War II precedent; Myanmar is not being invaded by a foreign power. However, there are some parallels the British ambassador should be mindful of in his newly acquired position.

Two years ago I accompanied a colleague to the British Embassy to watch a documentary titled Forgotten Allies. The documentary focused on members of the Chin and Karen forces who fought alongside crack British squadrons in Burma in World War II. The local organization I work for helped to track down elderly members of the Chin community for interviews.

When the British Army needed the manpower and support of the Chin Levies in World War II, often under persuasive tactics such as promises of autonomy if victorious, would a response from those groups suggesting “dialogue” or “peaceful negotiations” have sufficed as a response to the colonial master? Somehow, I think not.

As Chin communities across the world watch in horror as their relatives’ homes burn as a result of SAC bombing raids, it’s shameful that the UK still accepts an SAC appointee as the ambassador in London, an ex-Tatmadaw fighter pilot, and fails to recognize the NUG formally.

Since February 1, the SAC has killed 111 Chin people nationwide, of which 70 have taken place inside Chin state. The SAC has arrested more than 450 Chin community members while exercising their right to peaceful protest, and 330 remain detained.

Gross violations of human rights have led to about 30,000 people crossing into India’s Mizoram state as refugees since the coup. About 20,000 people remain internally displaced in Mindat Township, and up to 5,000 people are newly displaced in Thantlang Township since September 6. 

The UK, and the internationally community more widely, needs to recognize the legitimacy of the NUG, officially, following the good example of  the government of South Korea. Despite the obvious moral reasons for doing so, legally speaking the credentials are strong. The NUG has democratic legitimacy and has signaled its intention to adhere and to accept norms of international law, and territorially speaking, neither entity can claim full control.

The Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hluttaw (CRPH), established by ousted lawmakers in the wake of the military coup in February, formed the NUG based on the mandate bestowed on it by the people in the 2020 general election, which the National League for Democracy won by a landslide.

The NUG’s founding charter commits it to uphold international standards of human rights and democratic practice, including the rights of minorities.

The recent declaration of the defensive war by the NUG was delivered with guidelines that look to hold People’s Defense Forces accountable to the Geneva Conventions, international human rights, and humanitarian law. Moreover, the NUG has accepted the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, making it accountable for human-rights violations under the Rome Statute.  

Conversely, since February 1, the military junta has consistently violated the fundamental principles and pre-emptive norms of international human-rights law such as crimes against humanity and rules of international humanitarian law. Flagrant disregard for the Purposes and Principles of the UN Charter should render the credentials of the Myanmar junta illegitimate.

It’s time for governments that purport to put human rights at the forefront of policy to stop messing around, get on with the program, listen to what the people are saying and show some moral fortitude. In the meantime, the people of Myanmar will continue to fight tooth and nail, however they can, against Southeast Asia’s largest and most brutal army.

Michael Howard

Michael Howard is a human-rights activist who has worked in Chin state in northwestern Myanmar.